The election campaign is winding down in Mexico’s most industrialized and politically important state, a sprawling crescent surrounding Mexico City called the State of Mexico (”Edomex”).
Edomex is home to more than 16 million people, with 125 municipalities and many of the nation’s largest industries and manufacturers. After Mexico City, it’s the 2nd largest economy, and accounts for slightly over 13% of the national vote. Some have also called it Mexico’s “most unequal and dangerous state”.
President Peña Nieto hails from Edomex, as do a disproportionate number of other PRI luminaries, including Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray; former Pemex head Emilio Lazoya; former governor Arturo Montiel; kingmaker and businessman Carlos Hank González; and the longtime union leader, Fidel Velázquez, among others.
For 87 years, the PRI has ruled Edomex.
But this may possibly change. Just as the ruling party recently lost the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas – where kidnapping, extortion and drug violence had reached alarming levels – the party’s stranglehold in Edomex could soon end.
Harbinger for the presidency
Edomex is the last bastion of the PRI, point zero of its economic and political power. If it folds, there would be major repercussions – both for next year’s presidential elections and the current administration’s hold on power.
“This election is a plebiscite on Peña Nieto. Losing here would be irrefutable proof of his failure. It could finally bring real democracy to Mexico because Edomex is what sustains PRI nationally,” said Pablo Diaz, adjunct professor of political sciences at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM).
The leading contender for governor, Delfina Gómez Álvarez, 54, is a relative newcomer to politics, and is battling under the flag of anticorruption – the Achilles’ heel of the PRI. Two recent polls show Gómez in a tight race with Alfredo del Mazo, the PRI candidate (and the son and grandson of former Edomex governors).
Gómez’s party, Morena, was founded in 2014 by Andrés López Obrador (”AMLO”), a former mayor of Mexico City and two-time presidential candidate. AMLO has assumed the role of flag-bearer (once again) for the nation’s political left. His populist message takes aim at the ruling elite and the nation’s out-of-control corruption, violence and inequality.
While no candidate from Morena won a governorship in last year’s elections, the party performed strongly in three races and won seats in local contests. Analysts said that a victory in Edomex would greatly boost its chances for the presidency, not only by toppling the PRI’s political and economic base, but by putting corruption smack front-and-center in the 2018 presidential elections.
If that happened, most people think the PRI would fare poorly.
Fraud accusations dog the party
The PRI of course knows this, and is pulling every lever they can to hold on to power. Given the patronage system they’ve spent the last 87 years building – and financial backing made possible by extensive back channels – the likelihood that they will lose is remote.
Since the campaign started, the National Electoral Institute (”INE”) has received scores of allegations of threats, corruption and misuse of public funds. As of mid-April, officials had opened over 150 investigations — more than double the number of cases at the same point in the 2011 state elections for governor.
The opposition parties have accused state officials (i.e., the PRI) of violating federal campaign laws, including at least 100 recent visits made to promote state government projects and benefits, i.e., pork. The PRI denies this, saying that all visits by officials were legal and part of public service initiatives.
But more serious allegations have also surfaced. On May 15, the organization “Ahora”, headed by Dr. Emilio Álvarez Icaza, filed a complaint with the INE to investigate the diversion of nearly 4 billion pesos of public funds to Del Mazo’s campaign. Álvarez accuses the PRI of “triangulating” resources that were destined for OHL, a Spain-based multinational construction and civil engineering company.
Álvarez, who plans to run as an independent candidate for the presidency, claims to have uncovered a vast and intricate web of political and corporate racketeering between Edomex officials and huge multinational construction companies.
Conglomerates such as OHL, he said, won billion peso contracts for highway projects, including the Viaducto Bicentenario and the Circuito Exterior Mexiquense, then “cycled” money back into the PRI.
The beneficiary of this convert network right now is Alfredo del Mazo, said Álvarez, but it once benefited Peña Nieto, as well as current governor Eruviel Ávila.
He claimed to have evidence that one billion 600 million pesos recently awarded to the state’s highway construction agency (”SASCAEM”) is missing.
“We believe that the missing one billion 600 million pesos can buy about 1 million votes. This money was budgeted and then mysteriously disappeared from SASCAEM’s budget. It’s just one source of illicit funds being used in this campaign.”
Will the PRI fall?
Despite razor thin poll margins and widespread voter discontent, AMLO’s party still has a steep and unlikely path to victory.
Morena, running on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption ticket, has also been hit by its own scandals, including a video published recently by El Universal showing one of its mayoral candidates in Veracruz accepting a cash donation worth about 500,000 pesos on behalf of AMLO.
Another weak point is that Morena’s inner core isn’t exactly a bastion of integrity. The party is populated by politicians from other parties with long records of making dirty deals (or, as the Mexicans say, “long tails”). Many came from the PRI.
In a sense, this election isn’t even about corruption or transparency but rather disgust. Disgust with crime. Disgust with low pay. Disgust with the ruling party.
As Enrique Gómez, a journalist from Edomex, stated: “There’s no citizen uprising here. This is a fight between two political classes.” Voters, he claimed, will choose “who they think is the least worst.”
But maybe (despite my skepticism) times have changed. Just maybe the number of Mexicans who welcome disruption has reached critical mass. In that case, the legacy not only of Peña Nieto but even that of the PRI could be at stake. For if the party falls after 87 years in power – as it did in Veracruz and Tamaulipas – who knows what could happen next.
Given the its entrenched patronage network – and its willingness to do anything it can to prevent loss of the state – this scenario is improbable.
But the lesson from the campaign is clear: unleash the secrets of Edomex, and unleash Mexico.